The film version of The Golden Compass opens on December 7 and it’s worth remembering that the book, part of Philip Pullman’s series of fantasy novels, was widely discussed when Pullman finished the series back in the fall of 2000. first things published two sharp discussions at the time, both of which can be found on our website: “An Almost Christian Fantasy” by Daniel P. Moloney and “The End of Magic” by Sarah E. Hinlicky. But harder to find has been the great analysis that Alan Jacobs wrote, which we here reprint.—Eds.
In the world of literature for adolescents—“young adults” as the publishers call them—fantasy stories have a particular power to inspire loyalty. Think of J. R. R. Tolkien’s sagas of Middle Earth, Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea books, Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quartet, and all the rest.
These writers’ ability to construct what Tolkien called “secondary worlds”—complex environments sufficiently like our own to be recognizable but sufficiently different to generate excitement and wonder—is the chief means by which they secure their readers’ devotion. And it is precisely for this reason that something consequential is at stake when judging books of this kind: They offer not just a story but a world, and the lesson they teach is not just a moral but a worldview.
With the publication last week of The Amber Spyglass, the English writer Philip Pullman concludes the series that began in 1996 with The Golden Compass (or Northern Lights, as it was more appropriately called in England) and continued in 1998 with The Subtle Knife. The collective title of the trilogy is His Dark Materials, and it clearly marks Pullman as a masterful maker of secondary worlds—a writer whose talent puts him in the league of Tolkien, LeGuin, and Alexander.
Pullman’s career as a writer, though distinguished, did not promise this. His children’s mysteries set in Victorian London (the Sally Lockhart series) and his comic adventures (I Was a Rat!, Count Karlstein) are admirable, but none approaches the scope and ambition of His Dark Materials. Indeed, almost the only themes that connect his new trilogy with his earlier work are a predilection for female protagonists and a sentimental genuflection before adolescent sexual awakening.
In all other respects, His Dark Materials seems to come out of nowhere—but readers and critics alike have already recognized Pullman’s achievement. Even before The Amber Spyglass’s release, it was twelfth on Amazon.com’s bestseller list. The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife, the previous books in the series, have reaped almost every award available and won places on the “best of the year” lists from Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and the American Library Association.
Remarkably, many successful fantasies are theologically freighted, and Pullman’s is no exception—but the theological freight his books carry turns out to be a distinct anti-theology. The phrase “his dark materials” comes from John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and early in The Golden Compass the reader can already see that Pullman is retelling Milton’s epic and, by extension, the biblical narrative on which it is based. In His Dark Materials Pullman offers a Creation story with the familiar roles reversed: If, as William Blake said, “Milton was of the Devil’s Party without knowing it,” Pullman knows perfectly well whose side he is on.
Whichever party readers support in the ancient contest between God and Satan, they will be disappointed to see how often, in The Amber Spyglass, the tale’s momentum is interrupted by polemic. Pullman’s anti-theistic scolding consorts poorly with his prodigious skills as a storyteller. In imagination and narrative drive, he has few peers among current novelists. For such gifts to be thrust into the service of a reductive and contemptuous ideology is very nearly a tragedy.
His Dark Materials is a story not just of another world, but of multiple other worlds. The first volume, The Golden Compass, takes place in a universe similar to, but in crucial ways different from, our own. The plot is driven, at first, by its heroine Lyra Belacqua’s attempt to discover who is kidnapping poor and neglected children in this alternative England.
But, as Lyra’s quest continues, ever deeper levels of meaning are revealed, until we learn the titanic role that this girl will play: She has, one character says, “a great destiny that can only be fulfilled elsewhere—not in this world, but far beyond. Without this child, we shall all die.”
In the second book, The Subtle Knife, set partly in our own world, we are introduced to a determined, resourceful, but troubled boy named Will, whose ability to wield the “subtle knife”—which can cut literally anything and can open windows into multiple worlds—makes him the apt partner for Lyra, whose story he joins.
Finally, in the third installment, The Amber Spyglass, the strands converge: The fates of many worlds depend on the outcome of a prodigious battle, a War in Heaven, a universal Armageddon, and Lyra and Will have key roles to play.
From the first sentence of The Golden Compass, Pullman’s brilliance is apparent: “Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.” In Lyra’s world each person is accompanied by a lifelong companion in the form of an animal; this daemon is a kind of material projection of character, and since a child’s character is not fully formed, children’s daemons are capable of changing shape.
Puberty, then, involves not only hormonal change but also the “setting” of one’s daemon into its permanent form. Pullman brilliantly exploits the strange appropriateness of his invention. He has found a potent way to embody the human dilemma adolescents feel particularly strongly: We fear being alone, but dread still more the disapproving gaze of others. The daemons in Lyra’s world always comfort, never burden.
The author’s resourcefulness scarcely ends there. There are the “panserbjorne,” sentient, inscrutable Arctic bears with magnificent self-forged armor (their king, Iorek Byrnison, is one of the most memorable characters in the series); the lovingly rendered culture of the “gyptians” (for gypsies); and Lyra’s “alethiometer,” an intricate “symbol reader,” which she uses to acquire almost any knowledge she seeks. It is hard to think of another fantasist whose invention is so prodigious: Classic writers like Tolkien, and the currently celebrated J. K. Rowling, typically work with more conventional iconography.
Yet Pullman also draws on well-known literary traditions. Lyra and Will’s harrowing descent into Hell, which largely fulfills their joint quest and constitutes the key episode of the trilogy, pays due homage to previous treatments, from Homer to Virgil to Dante—with a fascinating variation drawn from Aeschylus’ The Eumenides.
One of the most interesting things about this episode in Hell, which occupies several chapters of The Amber Spyglass, is its echoes of C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce—interesting, because Pullman loathes Lewis. He has condemned “the sheer dishonesty of the narrative method” in Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, calling the series “one of the most ugly and poisonous things I’ve ever read,” with “no shortage of . . . nauseating drivel.”
Pullman’s echoes of Lewis are thus revisionary gestures, revealing his hatred not only of Lewis but of the Christianity Lewis represents. And this hatred becomes central, all too central, to Pullman’s story.
In the early pages of The Amber Spyglass, a pair of angels explain to Will certain events from the origin of the cosmos. (The role of the “Dust” they refer to is complicated; suffice it to say that Dust is the embodiment of either Original Sin or the creative energy of humankind, which may be the same thing in Pullman’s world.)
The Authority, God, the Creator, the Lord, Yahweh, El, Adonai, the King, the Father, the Almighty—those were all names he gave himself. He was never the creator. He was an angel like ourselves—the first angel, true, the most powerful, but he was formed of Dust as we are, and Dust is only a name for what happens when matter begins to understand itself. . . . The first angels condensed out of Dust, and the Authority was the first of all. He told those who came after him that he had created them, but it was a lie.
This is religious polemic disguised as explanation, but the polemic appears undisguised often enough. In The Subtle Knife we hear a witch—and Pullman’s witches are extravagantly virtuous—proclaim that “every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling.” In The Amber Spyglass the angel Xaphania tells a woman named Mary that “she and the rebel angels, the followers of wisdom, have always tried to open minds; and Authority and his churches have always tried to keep them closed.”
The Creation story that the rebel angels tell is not Pullman’s invention. It’s the one that Milton’s Satan tells in Book V of Paradise Lost:
We know no time when we were not as now;
Know none before us, self-begot, self-raised
By our own quickening power, when fatal course
Had circled his full orb, the birth mature
Of this our native heaven, ethereal sons.
Our puissance is our own, our own right hand
Shall teach us highest deeds, by proof to try
Who is our equal: then thou shalt behold
Whether by supplication we intend
Address, and to begirt the almighty throne
Beseeching or besieging. This report,
These tidings carry to the anointed king.
In other words, Satan believes that Creation was determined by some impersonal destiny (“fatal course”)—just as Pullman’s rebel angels contend that Dust inexplicably “condensed” into angels. God holds his throne, Satan says elsewhere, only by the strength of His “thunder.” There is no question, then, of His eternal right to sovereignty. Satan’s debate is purely strategic: whether to “beseech” or “besiege” the Authority in his Kingdom.
Eventually, Satan chooses war and loses, after which, unwilling to submit, he finds a third course, to be pursued on Earth rather than in Heaven: “guile” rather than “force.” From this new strategy results the temptation in Eden and our subsequent history of pain and brokenness.
Satan’s struggle is not over, of course, and the book of Revelation, in some readings, envisions a final battle between the old antagonists. By telling a version of this Armageddon story, Pullman extends his narrative from Creation to Apocalypse. The human leader of the rebels, Lord Asriel, marshals a vast army of mortal and immortal troops to assault the forces of the Authority and his Regent (the rather dubiously named Metatron). Asriel proves his fitness to be a Satanic hero by repeatedly announcing his determination to “break free” of the Authority’s tyranny, for the good of himself and all humanity. He exploits the whole rhetorical apparatus of the self-proclaimed Liberator, and it is not clear that Pullman realizes how much Asriel sounds like all other Liberators, from Robespierre to Stalin.
The first step in Asriel’s war is the building of a bridge between the worlds, which was also the first task of Milton’s Satan. Ultimately Asriel reenacts Satan’s voyage—though Pullman divides the Satanic role and gives the familiar serpent’s task of temptation (or, as he would have it, intellectual and moral liberation) to the pleasant and innocuous Mary. She is a scientist and a former nun, converted from Christianity to a vague neo-paganism by the manifold pleasures of a Mediterranean beach, and is clearly supposed to receive our full sympathy. Meanwhile Asriel engages in dubious battle with the Almighty’s army.
At this decisive point in the story, Pullman’s narrative energy flags markedly. There are times when it’s not even clear what’s happening, and the key anti-theological moment—toward which the whole narrative has been heading—is abruptly passed over in a few lines, after which the characters turn to things that more greatly interest them.
I suspect that Pullman does this deliberately, in order to make the truly anti-theological point that whether God lives or dies is not in the long run a very significant matter: One character suggests that we could best prove our love for a decrepit God by seeking him out and giving him “the gift of death.” But even if this is intentional, it’s still a problem. A writer who draws for a thousand pages on the narrative energy generated by the promise of Armageddon, only to toss the theme aside at the last moment, has cheated the reader.
By this point, however, Pullman the storyteller has also been cheated—by Pullman the village atheist. Powerful alternative versions of the biblical narrative can only be told by people who are themselves passionately theological: Pullman invokes Milton and Blake as his models, but he could scarcely be less like them. Pullman’s oft-professed materialism and anti-supernaturalism clash not only with Milton but still more with Blake, who, when he looked at the sun, saw not “a round disk about the size of a guinea” but “a multitude of the heavenly host crying Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.”
In his attempts to diminish God, Pullman ends up diminishing his own story. When the Almighty’s Regent, “a being whose profound intellect had had thousands of years to deepen and strengthen itself, and whose knowledge extended over a million universes,” is ruined because he can’t resist a seductive babe, or when Asriel attacks the Deity with a hovercraft straight out of Star Wars, it is not the absurdity of Christian doctrine that one contemplates.
Again and again, Pullman’s mocking of religious belief gets him into trouble. There is an irony in Pullman’s calling Lewis’s narrative method “dishonest,” because dishonesty is the signal moral trait of Pullman’s trilogy. One sees a number of unequivocally evil people in these books, and one sees a number of Christians, and these are always—always—the same people. Everyone associated with the Church is cruel, remorseless, and only rarely less than murderous. Conversely, everyone outside the Church is blindingly righteous, Lord Asriel being the only partial exception. (And his most indefensible deed proves to be the inadvertent cause of—in the narrative’s terms—an immeasurably great thing.) These decent, compassionate folk regularly denounce religion and God, while the monsters who run the Church utter scarcely a word in their own defense—just to make sure that no reader comes to a conclusion Pullman doesn’t want.
These anathemas are almost comically overt, but Pullman also employs a more insidious method, which becomes available to him through the multiple-worlds device. In The Amber Spyglass, a character named Mrs. Coulter says of the Church, “Killing is not difficult for them; Calvin himself ordered the deaths of children”—upon reading which, I thought, “No, he didn’t!” But then I remembered that Mrs. Coulter is from Lyra’s world, and in Lyra’s world the Reformation took a different course (as can be inferred from a reference to “Pope John Calvin” and his decision to move the papal seat to Geneva). This is a nice trick: Other universes become places where Pullman’s enemies can be made to do any imaginable evil, so that he can better justify his hatred of them. Meanwhile, who knows how many readers go away from this book believing that John Calvin massacred innocents with the callused enthusiasm of King Herod?
Omission serves Pullman’s purposes as well. In the whole trilogy there is just one reference to Jesus Christ, whose teachings, character, and influence do not, after all, fit well with Pullman’s picture of Christianity. And how many people, especially young people, know enough about Christian doctrine or the biblical narrative to realize just how deceptive Pullman’s treatment is? How many will know, for instance, that the sin of Adam and Eve had nothing to do with their love for each other, despite Pullman’s contentions in The Amber Spyglass that the Authority wants a world of ice-cold celibates and that erotic love is a form of rebellious creativity?
But Pullman soldiers doggedly on in his dismal campaign. His Deity doesn’t even reward his servants, but condemns all souls to a horrifically vacuous underworld (very like the one visited in Homer’s Odyssey). Pullman, unlike this Authority, proposes to save these souls—whose agony he powerfully describes—by annihilating them. Some readers may protest that annihilation is a poor sort of salvation, but Pullman portrays his characters’ obliteration as a kind of joyous merging with the Cosmos. He even says of one character that the “atoms of his beloved” will be waiting for him when he disintegrates.
Now this is the very height of narrative dishonesty. If I am vaporized, there is no longer an “I” to be rejoined with any equally nonexistent beloved. Atoms are just atoms, and if that’s how we end, let’s not prettify it with misty-eyed descriptions of children expiring in a “vivid little burst of happiness [like] the bubbles in a glass of champagne.” In the end Pullman shies from his own implications and gilds the dark truth he prides himself on being brave enough to face.
Such gilding fits Pullman’s general disrespect for honesty: His heroine Lyra, though everyone she meets calls her “innocent,” almost always saves the day with lies, and if in this final installment her lies get her into trouble, the lesson is certainly not that lying doesn’t pay but rather that lying doesn’t always pay.
If Christianity, and religion in general, are what Pullman is against, what is he for? Well, he’s in favor of open minds; he thinks we must choose between loveless God and godless love, and we should choose love. Events near the story’s end suggest that positive energy in the world, the Dust, is produced by specifically erotic love. Mary, that admirable tempter, asserts, “All we can say is that this is a good deed, because it helps someone, or that’s an evil one, because it hurts them.”
But then there is the bright, shining, explicitly political vision that emerges near the end, when a good character called King Ogunwe pronounces: “I am a king, but it’s my proudest task to join Lord Asriel in setting up a world where there are no kingdoms at all. No kings, no bishops, no priests. The Kingdom of Heaven has been known by that name since the Authority first set himself above the rest of the angels. And we want no part of it. This world is different. We intend to be free citizens of the Republic of Heaven.”
I suppose as an American I should resonate with this—to help, Pullman prefaces The Amber Spyglass with an apocalyptic epigraph from Blake’s “America: A Prophecy”—but I don’t. Politics and morals would be simple if all abuse of authority could be rectified by the elimination of authority. But, of course, republics require authorities, too. Without at least some governance we have, as Hobbes in his cruel clear-sightedness foresaw, not a harmonious commonwealth but the endless “war of every man against every man.” Pullman would be shocked if his vision bore such bitter fruit. But in the light of the last two centuries—in our world, that is, whose history is not to be neglected even in the creation of alternative worlds—he has no excuse for being shocked.
Ultimately the flaw that cripples Pullman’s ambitious trilogy is just this unwillingness to reckon with European history since the Age of Revolution. He renews the splendid anti-authoritarian rhetoric of that era without acknowledging that some of the best-intentioned rebels have seen their lovely plans turn foul. For Pullman, Blake’s early romanticism marks the end of history, and in His Dark Materials Pullman positions his readers at that wonderful moment before anyone could see, in the cold light of the morning after, the tangled consequences of even the most principled revolutions.
This sentimental refusal of historical understanding leads directly to the Manicheanism of Pullman’s moral vision: closed versus open minds, tyrants versus liberators, the vicious Church versus its righteous opponents. It is hard not to be reminded of Robespierre’s dictum: “There are only two parties in France, that of corrupt men and that of virtuous men.” And such crudity cannot be excused by the purported audience of these books. “Young adults” already spend too much time separating the sheep from the goats—the cool from the uncool, the socially approved from the socially ostracized—and they need no encouragement to practice binary division. A writer who tells adolescents that good folks are distinguished from evil ones on the single criterion of religious belief is not doing them any favors.
The luminously gifted Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials is a work so imaginatively potent that it has already inspired the kind of loyalty given to the secondary worlds of Tolkien and the other great fantasists.
But a story so thoroughly sentimental and manipulative doesn’t deserve that loyalty. Pullman’s readers should not overlook the deception, conscious or unconscious, that lurks at the heart of his beautiful, misbegotten endeavor: “The rhetorician would deceive others,” as Yeats once put it, “the sentimentalist himself.”
Alan Jacobs is professor of English at Wheaton College. This essay first appeared in the Weekly Standard, October 23, 2000, and is reprinted by permission.